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Green Drought
For the sake of the smelt, California farmland lies fallow.

(Illustration: Bob Bukin)

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San Joaquin Valley, Calif. — “We have the greatest factory anywhere on earth,” Harris Farms’ executive vice president, William Bourdeau, tells me, as our car bumps rapidly along the dirty, uneven track. “These are pistachio trees,” he says, sweeping his hand across the horizon. “Over there, we have asparagus.” He points through the windshield. “And in that facility, we process garlic.”

Around the corner and away from the freeway, I see almonds, broccoli, onions, watermelons, and tomatoes. Lettuce, which in the grand scale of things is a mere afterthought for Harris, is produced nevertheless on an astonishing scale, with 3 million cartons — 72 million head — being shipped out each year, the fruit of 700,000 man-hours. On neighboring Harris Ranch, the largest in the West, there are 100,000 cattle, most of which will eventually end up at In-N-Out Burger joints along the Pacific Coast and throughout the Southwest. The smell of the cattle permeates the air for a good mile around, announcing the farm to travelers before any signs come into view. In the distance, the mountains loom large.

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“Factory” is a good word to describe California’s San Joaquin Valley. But “laboratory” might be a little better, for the region is an agri-tinkerer’s delight. The soil being uncharacteristically fertile and the summers being long and dry, growers are afforded that most valuable of things: control. Emancipated from Gaia’s caprice, farmers here can determine precisely not only how much water they wish to provide to their crops but when to add it, too. Which is to say that, in the Central Valley, irrigation is achieved not by the whimsy of the sky but by deliberately placed pipes, pumps, and microprocessors. It is here that the ancient earth meets the best of technology; where Silicon Valley meshes with the baser elements and, together, they yield life. “If the Pilgrims had landed in California,” Ronald Reagan liked to joke, “the East Coast would still be a wilderness.” Undoubtedly. I suspect fewer Pilgrims would have died, too. Make no mistake: This place is a miracle — a vast greenhouse in which, unmolested by the elements and provided with incomparably fecund terrain, farmers can do their thing as never before.

The results speak for themselves. Just under 13 percent of all agricultural production in the United States takes place in the region, which the locals refer to proudly as “the Food Basket of the World” or, occasionally, “America’s Salad Bowl.” Most of the country’s asparagus and raisins are born in these fields; nearby Kings County boasts the largest cotton farm in the world; and among the astonishing array of products shipped out from the area are citrus fruits, pistachios, grapes, peaches, lettuce, tomatoes, garlic, alfalfa, and kiwi fruit. All in all, 250 different crops are grown. “We supply almonds to the world — 80 percent of the total global output,” Bourdeau explains when we arrive at Harris’s shelling facility. “They’re one of the things we’re actually exporting. That’s great for a country that’s a net importer of things.”

It is great, yes. Astonishing and mesmerizing, in fact. And yet I am soon made aware that there is trouble in paradise, for, having first seen what Harris is doing, I am shown in no uncertain terms what Harris is not doing. Suddenly, as if crossing a line of demarcation — I am reminded of Checkpoint Charlie, the gate that linked West and East Berlin — we leave healthy fields bursting with life, and we arrive at . . . well, we arrive at nothing: just dust, quiet, and a few pieces of unused farming equipment. It’s quite the shift: a real-life Before and After comparison. And sadly, most of the farm looks like this. Some 9,000 of Harris’s 15,000 acres are fallow — devoid of water and therefore of crops and of workers and of attention. “Uncertainty is the new normal,” CEO John Harris sighs from the driver’s seat, his smile disappearing. “This is no way to run anything.”

Harris tools the car around untouched pastures, and I am told at length about the Water Troubles. “Without water, we can’t work,” Bourdeau laments from the backseat. “It’s not healthy. We’ll do what we can. We’ll grow what we can grow where we can grow it. But without knowing how much water we’re going to get, it’s so difficult to plan!” A pistachio tree, for example, takes five to seven years to grow. “How can we plant one now if we can’t guarantee we can water it in a couple of years?” Bourdeau asks.

That the drought is making planning all but impossible is a refrain I hear all across the region — both from the established farmers who are desperate to draw this year’s crop map and from the wannabe planters who cannot secure the loans they need to start up on their own. One aspiring rancher tells me that he is thinking of selling his land and moving out. “I wouldn’t lend me the money I need to plant,” he gripes, honestly. “I’m stuck, I guess. I can’t plant. But who will buy my land?”

You have almost certainly never heard of the Delta smelt and, in all honesty, nor should you have. As fish go, it is undistinguished. Inedible, short-lived, and growing to a maximum length of just under three inches, smelt are of interest to nobody much — except, that is, to the implacable foot soldiers of the modern environmental movement, some of whom have recently elevated the smelt’s well-being above all else that has traditionally been considered to be of value. Human beings, the production of food, and the distribution of life-enabling water can all be damned, it seems. All hail the smelt, the most important animal in America.


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